Friday 30 September 2011

Brad Paisley and American masculinity

Y'all know that I'm a serious man pondering serious matters, so this post's descent into frivolity may shock and sadden you. Rest assured that I feel your pain, for it is mine. *clears throat*

I love country music. That's often considered unusual, even embarrassing on this side of the pond (and, I'm told, in parts of the US). And while I do like the classic stuff - Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and more modern Americana artists like Dave Alvin - I'm also into some fairly gaudy, poppy acts. Case in point: Brad Paisley. In many ways, Paisley ought to be the antithesis of all that I like in music: his stuff is often shallow, calibrated to produce chart-topping singles, carefully produced into the tiniest detail, and shamelessly pandering to the perceived prejudices of his audience. He's sober, happy, and entirely devoid of the inner torment that is the lot of most great country artists.

Much of what needs to be said about Paisley has been, in this masterful instalment of Nathan Rabin's Nashville or Bust series. Rabin points out that Paisley is very much a 'guy's guy', making music for men. It so happens that I've finally decided to get in touch with my inner man this past year. It was an occasion of some joy to discover he did, in fact, exist, having somehow survived The O.C. marathons and a good amount of Dungeons & Dragons; and I nurtured him by hitting the gym, discovering the joys of beer and whiskey and reactivating a dormant interest in sports that involve being hit in the face.

Paisley's own turn towards guy music was somewhere between his third (Mud on the Tires, 2003) and fourth albums (Time Well Wasted, 2005). He ditched the collared cowboy shirts and went from being a nice young man playing neotraditional country to a much more populist act incorporating plenty of pop influences (including a number of collaborations with Carrie Underwood). But as I will argue through scattershot references to a couple of his songs, what underlies his work is a renegotiation of traditional masculinity in the twenty-first century that includes deconstructing treasured male behaviours.

'Ticks' is one of a number of songs in which Paisley deconstructs men's attempts to pick up women ('Me Neither', an adaptation of the 'Like a weasel' exchange in Hamlet 3.2, is another excellent example). The song's narrator, eager to see 'the other half / of your butterly tattoo', contrasts himself favourably with 'every guy in here tonight', who merely 'would like to take you home'. He, of course, has nobler aims: namely, to 'check you for ticks' after a trip to the countryside. The song deconstructs men's crude designs, but it does so with a tongue-in-cheek yokel charm that has become Paisley's trademark.

'Online' is one of Paisley's more controversial songs. Kevin J. Coyne thought Paisley was cruelly mocking all those less handsome, wealthy and successful than him: cyberbullying, if you will. And at first I was convinced. After all, the song's protagonist 'work[s] down at the Pizza Pit' and lives in his parents' basement, is '5'3'' and overweight' as well as 'a sci-fi fanatic' who has 'never been to second base'. It is only in the magical world of the internet that 'even on a slow day [he] can have a three-way chat with two women at one time' by pretending to be a wealthy Hollywood single who 'drive[s] a Maserati' and is 'a black belt in karate'.

But then, just when I was thoroughly appalled at Paisley, I discovered that he's 1.74m tall - an inch shorter, in other words, than even my little sister. Totally irrational and patronising though it is, this made me think he couldn't be a bully: surely he must have struggled with his Cruisean height. So I re-examined the song, and voilà! It actually celebrates its protagonist. The hilarious video, starring Seinfeld veteran Jason Alexander as the nerd and William Shatner and Estelle Warren as his parents, certainly plays a part in making the protagonist sympathetic (and he gets the girl!) while depicting the bullies as despicable and empty-headed.

It also serves to make Paisley's character, the superstar our protagonist would like to be, seem like a jackass jock. Combined with the nerd's infinitely more fun-looking hobbies (lightsaber fights! playing the tuba!), 'Online' perversely becomes an ecstatic celebration of the transformative possibilities of the internet. True, it does not offer a critique of underlying models of success: the nerd's chances lie not in alternative models of success to the handsome, wealthy Hollywood playboy, but in the possibility of plausibly mimicking the latter. But who am I to nitpick the mind of Paisley?

Moving steadily into more awkward territory, we have 'You Need a Man Around Here' from Time Well Wasted. The song's narrator finds himself exasperated by his girlfriend's interior decorating, which lacks 'a mounted bass', appropriately manly magazines, or a telly of unusual size. He concludes that 'you need a man around here... someone to kill the spiders, change the channel and drink the beer'. This would be offensive if it wasn't for - well, okay, it is offensive. Like many male musicians, Paisley can be quite patronising towards women, who often look 'so darn cute' to him (the Springsteen equivalent would be the ubiquitous address 'little girl'). But it's somewhat mitigated by the sheer worthlessness of the slob boyfriend's decorating advice and the shallowness of his taste, which certainly outdoes the candles his girlfriend is so liberal with.

It's on 'I'm Still A Guy' that Paisley finally goes too far even for my forgiving judgment. The protagonist's girlfriend is proud of having domesticated him, but he is keen to assert that he's as masculine as ever: 'These days there's dudes gettin' facials / Manicured, waxed and botoxed / With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands / You can't grip a tacklebox. /  Yeah, with all of these men linin' up to get neutered / And headin' out to be feminised / But I don't highlight my hair, I've still got a pair / Yeah honey, I'm still a guy.'

And this is the distinctive male identity Paisley's so proud of: 'When you see a deer you see Bambi / And I see antlers up on the wall / ... Oh, my eyebrows aren't plucked, / There's a gun in my truck / Oh, thank God, honey, I'm still a guy.' Well, with the greatest respect: frak you, Brad Paisley. Those masculine traits are designed to appeal to the imagined audience, but I'm a vegetarian, and while guns may be necessary in some situations there's nothing to be proud of in tools for murder (not to mention that pride in firearms doesn't travel across the pond very well).* Of course there's affectionate parody in the primitiveness 'I'm Still A Guy' implicitly accuses men of, but I'd not be quite comfortable drunkenly singing along to this - unlike most of Paisley's songs.

Paisley, then: an artist who de- and reconstructs traditional models of masculinity. Most of the time he does well, poking holes in the lies men tell themselves and others. But there's something just a little too comfortable about gentle ribbing that allows men to laugh at themselves without challenging them to change. Bring on revolutionary feminist country music!

*Yes, I fully acknowledge guns are awesome, but they're also terrible, and the sooner the world is rid of them the better.

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